Election 2019 is a battle to define the agenda

Bruce Anderson

Bruce Anderson

In our latest survey, we offered respondents a list of possible issues that might affect their vote and asked them to identify the three that would be most important to them.


• In every election, health care is at or near the top of the list of what people say matters to them (although it isn’t always evident that this is actually what happens on election day), in this year, climate change and the cost of living rival health care for public attention. This is the first time that climate change has occupied such a central place in the public debate.

• The adage holds that elections are almost always about the economy, but in this instance, the top economic concern isn’t so focused on jobs, but the cost of living, taxes and housing affordability.

• Income inequality and making sure the wealthy pay their fair share also attract a fair bit of attention.

• “Backroom deals” is low on the list of public preoccupations which suggests that the SNC Lavalin issue may have limited shelf life.


Exploring the issues of concern and how people say they would vote if the election were today, reveals which issues play to the advantage to which parties:

• Of the top six issues, the Liberals have an advantage over the Conservatives on health care, climate change, and housing affordability. The Conservatives have an advantage on the cost of living, taxes and good jobs and wages.

• Of the other issues measured, the Liberals have an advantage over the Conservatives on reducing discrimination, income inequality, making sure the wealthy pay their fair share, standing up to Donald Trump, public transit and indigenous reconciliation.

• The Conservatives have an advantage over the Liberals on reducing the deficit, managing immigration, securing the border to illegal immigration, and “backroom deals.”

To visualize this a different way, the Liberals fare best if the election centres on fighting climate change and discrimination, managing the challenging relationship with US President Trump, working to reduce income inequality, cut out of pocket health care costs, public transit and affordable housing. The Conservatives would fare better if the election turns on reducing the deficit, securing the border and managing immigration, taxes and the cost of living.

The NDP fares best on income inequality, indigenous reconciliation, out of pocket health costs, and fighting discrimination. The Green Party draws more support around climate change, indigenous reconciliation, transit, “backroom deals,” and income inequality.


According to Bruce Anderson: “The Conservatives can win an election that focuses on taxes, deficits, the cost of living, and immigration. They face a bigger challenge if voters focus on climate change, income inequality, health care, and fighting discrimination.

Strategically, this leaves the Liberals with two alternative imperatives. They may fight to win votes from the Conservatives by drawing a contrast on climate change and reminding people of their middle-class tax cuts and climate refund. And they may fight to win votes from the NDP and Green Party by highlighting their efforts to reduce income inequality, fight discrimination, create good jobs and fight climate change.

In this pursuit, drawing a contrast with the Conservatives as the party most likely to win if the Liberals don’t succeed, may be an important message, as will reminding voters that if they care about the cost of living, the Ford government’s record in Ontario shows that conservative governments can make life harder as they pursue deficit reductions.

For the Conservatives, the strategic implications include trying to increase the number of people who vote fiscal and immigration issues and becoming more competitive on climate change. They must also avoid losing their advantage on the cost of living issue as voters wonder whether the Ford government cutbacks would be echoed by a Scheer government. The Conservatives remain vulnerable, as they were in 2015, on issues of equality and discrimination. Pressing on the immigration issues often carries the risk of being seen as playing to the intolerant, a risk heightened in the context of an election where Max Bernier is pitching hard at this issue, and where Donald Trump is pursuing this issue aggressively as well.”

According to David Coletto: “Elections are not always fought on a defining issue that voters respond to when they go into the ballot box. But sometimes, elections become about a single issue and which party is best to deal with it. At this stage in the pre-election period, the parties and leaders are trying to define that question.

Our polling suggests that a handful of issues are likely to consume voters and offer parties opportunities to differentiate and motivate voters. The cost of living and housing are important to many voters. At the same time, growing concern about climate change and deliberation about the best approach to tackle is something new to the federal issue landscape.

Issue salience will ultimately be what matters. If the election is ultimately framed around pocketbook issues (taxes and the cost of living), the Conservatives have the advantage. If instead, it becomes about protecting public services like health care and reducing out of pocket healthcare costs, broader values of inclusion and diversity, the Liberals are well placed to excel.

Climate change, perceptions about the cost of living, and immigration appear more complicated in my mind.

If climate change becomes the defining issues of the campaign, then the Conservatives may struggle, especially if concern continues to grow and it becomes more of a consensus issue than it is now. But there’s also a risk for the Liberals in that their more “middle-of-the-road” approach, compared to the NDP and Green plans, may be deemed too modest for voters seeking a more ambitious climate agenda.

On the cost of living, how the issue is framed can also impact the way voters respond to the issue. If more voters are convinced that policy choices the Liberals have made life more unaffordable or that Mr. Trudeau is not sensitive or empathetic to the concerns voters have, the Conservatives can benefit. If on the other hand, the focus becomes on protecting public services, reducing inequality and increasing wages, and reducing out of pocket healthcare costs, then both the Liberals and NDP could benefit. There’s also a growing understanding that climate change itself is making life more expensive and a failure to act will continue to put pressure on people’s household budgets and those of governments having to spend to mitigate the impacts of global warming.

On immigration, few voters raise the issues as their top concern (5%), but it is an issue that could benefit the Conservatives if its salience rises between now and election day. But as Bruce notes above, if the Conservatives shift the battlefield more aggressively to immigration, it opens the door to Maxime Bernier, whose rhetoric and platform on these is likely to outflank the Conservatives. There are opportunity and risk in such a strategy.”

In case you missed it: Here’s out poll released last week on vote intentions and the political landscape


Our survey was conducted online with 3,092 Canadians aged 18 and over from June 28 to July 2, 2019. A random sample of panellists was invited to complete the survey from a set of partner panels based on the Lucid exchange platform. These partners are double opt-in survey panels, blended to manage out potential skews in the data from a single source.

The margin of error for a comparable probability-based random sample of the same size is +/- 1.8%, 19 times out of 20. The data were weighted according to census data to ensure that the sample matched Canada’s population according to age, gender, educational attainment, and region. Totals may not add up to 100 due to rounding.


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